How About We Start Serving Our Enemies First?

Posted: July 1, 2016 in Hermeneutics, Theology

Anytime I think about living the Christian faith in the context of the world my mind immediately travels to relationships. Perhaps its a generation thing for me, but I can’t help but think that somewhere along the line we got things confused and backwards. I grew up in a faith tradition that placed a high emphasis upon doctrinal belief. For all the talk of theology and doctrine they suffered from the same issues as most of the other faith communities I had encountered. In my twenties and thirties I found my faith being drawn strongly toward the Anabaptist community and by 2001 I was a pastor in the Church of the Brethren. It was in this context I found myself formed through friendships and those dear brothers and sisters who took me under their wings as I entered this peculiar community. This faith community is different from the one I grew up in, rather than emphasizing doctrinal belief, service is at the center of our faith. Yet still in this faith community we struggle with the same issues as the other communities.

I think one of the things that we get wrong in our culture (and our church in particular) is that we frame everything in an either/or frame of reference. What makes us think that it has to be one or the other. This isn’t “Talladega Nights: The Ricky Bobby Story.” It’s not first or last, win or lose. There are countless other options in between. Liberal culture tends to frame its contexts in either/or terms. We love to look at existence as a spectrum. Why as spectrum? Why not a circle, square, or even a narrative? As much as I am convinced that the tradition I grew up in gets it wrong in their emphasis, I think that doctrine does matter and that the church should be involved in the work of doctrine. And on the other hand I believe service should be at the center of who we are as a community, but at the same time engaging in the theological conversation. I have become convinced that the best doctrinal conversations emerge out of service and ministry.

From a hermeneutical perspective I’m convinced that followers of Jesus  practice a particular way of living so as to change the way they look at the world (re-imagine) and even how they interpret the scriptures. Unfortunately we have become so integrated into western culture that we miss the point of this. We are so caught up in narcissistic individualism in a capitalistic democracy that we misconstrue rights, freedom and desire for discipleship. In his new book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider makes the interesting observation that the primary virtue of the early Christians was patience. The fact that this virtue serves as the foundation of the primary markers (service of poor, no oaths, nonviolence, modesty, etc.) of the Christian faith is significant. In the book he notes the strong emphasis in forming the habitual living of initiates before baptism and argues that these practices being habituated precedes (and coincides) readings of scripture (habits form interpretive lenses). Service to the poor and acts of loving kindness were so embedded in the DNA of the community that by the time baptism took place the initiates way of living was already engraved with the virtue of patience. Admittedly this is a general statement but the gist of the idea is that the practices of the Christian community were of supreme import not because they wanted to be social advocates but because it was born out of a deep gratitude for the gift of grace given through Jesus to continue the work Jesus started.

When I look at how we address conflict today in the church I notice a significant absence of patience. Don’t get me wrong I’m not advocating procrastination or avoidance (especially not an extension of injustice), but a patience that seeks to love the other (even one we see as enemy), to serve the other. It is a patience that desires reconciliation. Whole relationship is required for communion. I wonder what the church would look like if we practiced virtuous living and held our tongues until this way of living was a habit? Perhaps if we found ways to serve those we consider enemies our approach to the conflict would change. Unfortunately, we seemingly haven’t the will to embrace the other. Maybe the church needs the Spirit to pierce its heart with the loving grace of Christ to reform the will as Augustine argues.

What has become evident is that our Christian living has not become so habituated in us that our first response is one of patience. In a desire to keep control of what is familiar and known we lose sight of the mystery of God and the other. We attempt to simplify debates into yes or no decisions without considering the larger perspective of relationship. What I’m not saying is that we give up on moral and ethical living, but to reconsider what that actually is. In my reading of scripture  it appears to be that grace, redemption and salvation all focus upon the reconciliation of God to humans and humans to each other. The implications to this is that it is all about the relationship. It is about a new standing and grafting into a new family where God is father and we are his children. The parables of the lost underscore the essential nature of this new standing and the cost that was given to create it. So I guess I’m wondering when we the church will grasp this and begin again serving the other (least and enemy) out of love before we ever say a word. Then maybe we will begin to catch a glimpse of the kingdom we desire.

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